Date of Award

Fall 1982

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This study provides detailed description of criminal cases at the Essex County, Massachusetts Court of General Sessions of the Peace from 1700 to 1785 and analyzes the relationship between crime and social tension in Massachusetts during this period. The Court of General Sessions was the county administrative and criminal court in eighteenth century Massachusetts and its records are extensive. Essex County, moreover, was a socially and economically diverse community, and it is an appropriate representative sample of eighteenth century Massachusetts society.

Sessions Court records yield a tremendous amount of detailed information about criminal activity in eighteenth century Essex County. The consistent procedural format of court records lists each defendant's name, residence and occupation, his means of referral to court and plea as well as the court's judgement and sentence. Categories of crime include fornication and bastardy, Sabbath violations, thefts and assaults, liquor crimes, contempt and other miscellaneous crimes such as counterfeiting.

Tabulation of criminal cases provides for more detail about crime in eighteenth century Massachusetts than have other studies. Moreover, there appears to be a relationship between certain crimes and economic class.

Further analysis of court records reveals evidence of the social and economic unrest in eighteenth century Massachusetts described by recent scholars. Other evidence suggests greater sensitivity to deviant behavior during the Great Awakening. The colonial wars and the Revolution also had a noticeable effect on Sessions Court activity.

This study's extensive collection of tabulated court data is valuable as a reference for future research. The relationships shown between crime and social stress complement recent studies of social change in eighteenth century Massachusetts.